Friday 28 November 2014

Vergne and the margins between success and misery in modern F1

Here's a challenge for you. Try to explain to someone the general logic behind which drivers get retained in F1 race seats and which get ditched. Without sounding insane.

You'll no doubt be aware that it wouldn't be an easy task. And this week we had just the latest cruel rejection of a worthy competitor, that of Jean-Eric Vergne.

The Abu Dhabi race was indeed the last we'll see
of Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso
Photo: Octane Photography
It was a slightly on-off goodbye. He was officially out way back in the summer break when the fledgling Max Verstappen was confirmed for a Toro Rosso 2015 gig. But then when Sebastian Vettel's unanticipated departure from the Red Bull big team had the domino effect of Daniil Kvyat being promoted to replace him, some started to muse that Vergne could be retained after all so to plug the resultant vacancy. Indeed Franz Tost confirmed during the Sochi weekend that Vergne was back in the running.

But no. Before we know it we're back where we started, as Vergne himself confirmed on Twitter earlier this week: 'Despite a good season and 22 points, I'll not drive anymore for Toro Rosso in 2015. Thanks for those years. Let's go for another big challenge.'

Instead it appears that one of the latest Bull up-and-comers Alex Lynn or Carlos Sainz Jr will partner Verstappen, with the grapevine having it going to Sainz. The same grapevine has Vergne resurfacing as a Williams reserve.

But still it seems a terrible waste of talent. Moreover it seems comparing Vergne's predicament with where his former team mate and fellow-whipper snapper Daniel Ricciardo is now underlines how the margin between success and misery in modern F1 is often absurdly thin. Worse it seems far from the first time we've been given cause to lament about either phenomenon.

It's odd to think that for most of their time together at Toro Rosso there wasn't a great deal to choose between Vergne and Ricciardo. Indeed word from within the Red Bull camp was that Vergne was the more highly-rated of the two.

As Toro Rosso team mates there was little to choose
between Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
The selection of Ricciardo for promotion to the Red Bull A team for 2014 wasn't random of course. He stepped up to the mark when the big seat became available in the mid-part of last year, seizing his opportunity knocks moment with a series of stunning Q3 grid slots as well as converting a few into a good points finishes. While Vergne at the same moment if anything regressed a little. And the ability to set a representative qualifying lap - him tending to look edgy and error-prone when it mattered - continued to hold him back.

Both faced a pitch with bat in hand; Ricciardo took a swing and scored a home run. Vergne left the ball and never got to face another.

But I still view Vergne as a very strong F1 driver - as do plenty who have worked with him. He's a proper and willing racer, classically skilled and blessed with fine car control. And to give some examples of his high-tide watermarks, in Hungary this year he battled gamely in second place for several laps, and ambushed Nico Rosberg in fine style along the way to getting there. While in Singapore his race was supreme, gobbling up the road and several opponents - particularly in scintillating final laps - to overcome two penalties and finish sixth.

But what really shows Vergne in a good light is that essentially the only difference between him and Ricciardo when paired in the same cars was in qualifying in the dry. Indeed in other aspects such as race pace if anything Vergne was slightly the better (though helped by tending to have more fresh tyres as a result of dropping out of quali sooner). And for 2014 Vergne self-admittedly focussed on his weak spot, and it had a clear positive impact as he bagged a succession of top ten qualifying slots, as well as did not give much away to his fast young stable mate Kvyat on Saturdays. So - given how Ricciardo has wowed us in 2014 - you do the maths.

He's also been far the more impressive than Kvyat in races (the latter not really yet having sorted looking after the rear tyres), as evidenced in part by his 22 points in total this year to the Russian's eight. And foul luck - especially early in the year with a series of mechanical failures - stopped him getting a lot more even than that.

But still it seems he rather was on a hiding to nothing. Toro Rosso pilots have a strict three-year lifespan as well as that after being passed over for a step up there apparently usually is no way back, even with his improvement. Vergne in his specific case was likely diddled either way - if Ricciardo did well at Red Bull then there was nowhere for him to go; if he didn't then it would reflect badly on him.

But while we don't often need encouragement to point fingers at Red Bull on the charge of being terribly nasty to its drivers in fact the behaviour isn't confined to it. It is a general phenomenon, and one that has contributed to F1 careers these days being incredibly knife-edge, as Vergne has just found out.

F1's financial crisis impedes drivers such as Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
For various reasons the good midfielder - not a talent from the top drawer but comfortably good enough to be within the top 20 or however many rides there are - doesn't exist anymore in modern F1. The three-year limit we associate with the Bulls has applied to virtually all others (not bringing money) outside of the Red Bull stable in recent years too, in that if you don't within that timespan demonstrate that you're from the very top level, or else bring money and/or commercial opportunities, you're out. Go through F1 drivers for 2015 and virtually (maybe actually) all now fit into one or more of the following three categories: top level talents, pay drivers and youngsters within that opening three years.

And see Paul di Resta, Kamui Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen as a few recent non-Red Bull examples that conform almost precisely in being good midfielders ditched on that timescale (though the latter two managed to sustain their existences on life support at Caterham for a while afterwards). In Kobayashi's case, in a scenario with some echoes of Ricciardo and Vergne, in 2012 he scored only six points fewer than Sergio Perez as Sauber team mates (66 to 60), but at the season's end Perez got a big break at McLaren while Kobayashi at the very same moment got the heave-ho from F1.

Which brings us nicely to the oft-discussed subject of pay drivers. They have always existed as we know; probably always will too. But F1's financial crisis we know about also, particularly for those teams competing in the midfield downwards, thus drivers with cash are especially welcome to such squads right now. And the effect of this is manifold, in that not only are team bosses more demanding of their drivers and have more of an incentive to ditch them in short order to bring in Mr Moneybags, it also all means that if a driver is dropped they have fewer race seat alternatives in F1 to take refuge at. Indeed I worked out that for next season outside the top five teams (ignoring Toro Rosso which has its own priorities of course) there are a grand total of two drivers that are there primarily on talent and not on helping to balance the books - Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.

Retaining your place in F1 has always been tough. But the sport's warped ways of lately ensure that right now it is toweringly so.

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